Iwanai Till I Die
“We wanted that to be the resort slogan, but like, what if someone actually dies on the mountain? That would be a P.R. nightmare!” - Danny
Iwanai is a little fishing village in southwestern Hokkaido, you might never have heard of it, I certainly hadn’t until a couple months ago. But when the opportunity arose for us to live and work there for few weeks, we jumped at the chance to experience small-town Japanese life in this sleepy coastal city. I’d found us jobs at the ski lodge, renovating the chair lift and doing other odd jobs around the property in exchange for a roof over our heads and a couple meals each day. Time was a luxury we’d never had before, our previous trips were always spent jumping from country to country, trying to fit in as many tourist attractions as we could with our limited vacation days. Now that we have the time, we wanted to start this trip somewhere off the beaten path, and stay there for a while. We didn’t know it going in, but we experienced more culture and made more connections in a couple weeks in Iwanai than in all our past trips combined.
We stayed in a quirky little house, with a rotating cast of characters for housemates that we grew very fond of over our few weeks there. Our host/boss was Danny, a fellow American who’s been living in Japan for about eight years now. His uncle John owns the resort - the story is John was a young man traveling in Asia some thirty years ago when he ate Shanghai crab in China, got hepatitis, and ended up hospitalized in Sapporo. His bed happened to be next to the CEO of a large tech company’s, somehow he made the right connections, and has been in Japan ever since. A few years ago, John got the backing to purchase the ski resort in Iwanai where they're now using cheap labor to fix it up, which is where we come in. Danny was a young guy, with a crass sense of humor that sometimes made me roll my eyes, but usually had me doubled over in laughter. We spent a lot of time with him, drinking beer and sharing stories about life on the run.
Another roommate was Daigo, a guy from Chiba (near Tokyo) whose job was to deal with business-related matters at the resort that needed a native speaker. He’d teach me Japanese words and his entire face would light up when he laughed at my terrible pronunciation. We also lived with Hide the mechanic, I barely heard him say a word the entire time we were there, but he’d wave to us across the lawn from among the power tools and Cat machines. Then there was Ayui, a sweet intern from Osaka who taught me that I've been making rice wrong my entire life (you have to wash it several times before you cook it).
The only bad roommates were the insects, they grow them big out there on the mountain, and lots of them too. It was standard procedure to pick grasshoppers the size of your palm out of the shower, sweep centipedes through the bedroom before going to sleep. Danny told us a story about another person he had working here a while back, a German guy who lasted less than twenty four hours in the house before turning around and heading back for Sapporo - too many bugs. Danny laughed as he told us that story, he seemed to take pride in the fact that his “life was so disgusting that guy couldn’t even last one day in it.” It sounds gross but it really wasn’t that bad, and in a strange way it makes you feel a little closer to nature. It was all part of the experience.
Our day-to-day tasks would vary, anything from pumping oil to chipping wood, but mostly it was sanding the ski lift to get it ready before repainting for winter. The work wasn't easy, we'd come home every night covered in dirt and rust; each morning my arms and legs would feel sore from the day before. Yet at the same time, I never got tired of it. In Chicago, I'd sit at a desk chair for eight hours a day, stare at a monitor in an office building, earn a paycheck that went straight into savings. It wasn't a bad life, in fact it was a life I had worked really hard to achieve. But in Iwanai, we breathed in the Japanese mountain air every morning, sweated, worked with our hands to earn a spot at the dinner table and a place to stay the night. It was so different and completely satisfying, in a totally new kind of way.
Danny was a self-proclaimed “fucking celebrity in this town!!”, and luckily for us that meant we were invited to all sorts of local activities most nights after work. One evening we hosted an English lesson at the lodge, which was basically just chatting with all the local fishermen’s wives about the best places in town to get sushi. Another day we tagged along to Daigo’s kickboxing lesson (he’s an instructor), where we came out with some embarrassing videos of us trying to learn the proper form for a high kick. My favorite might have been when we volunteered at the local children’s camp - playing Red Light Green Light, eating Japanese barbecue, and teaching the kids how to roast marshmallows on a campfire.
We got used to the little things here, stuff you wouldn’t experience if you were just staying in a hotel. We learned to bow deeply when we meet somebody new, wash our garbage before throwing it away, drive on the left side of the road. We took day trips to temples and shrines, one day we made the journey to a sushi restaurant in Kamoenai that’s renowned in Japan (people would fly in from Tokyo just to go to this place). We put in our names at 10:30am and weren’t seated until after 1:00pm - who would have thought the longest I’d ever wait for a meal would be in an unassuming little mom and pop sushi joint in rural Hokkaido, but it was hands down one of the best.
One weekend here coincided with Iwanai’s Dotou Matsuri (Crashing Wave Festival), where there’s a tradition that some local men will carry mikoshi (shrines) around town with local women on top, the townspeople follow and throw water at them. Due to Danny’s “celebrity” status, of course Peter was one of the forty men holding the shrines, and I was one of the six women on top. I fully expected all privacy to go out the window during this trip, but I never thought it'd be quite like this - stripping naked in front of a room full of strangers, being wrapped in a white cloth so tight I could barely breathe (apparently it’s what Buddhists would traditionally wear during the ceremony), then, quite literally, paraded around town while having water thrown at me. Part of it felt like a weird, glorified wet-T-shirt-contest, but mostly it was a unique, authentic cultural experience that I feel lucky to have had.
Later that night we drank beer and watched the fireworks, the town set off five thousand of them in celebration. There are no pictures from the festival that evening though, watching the fireworks that clear night in Japan and spending time with friends old and new was something we had to do cameras down, eyes up. (Also I was too drunk to function, which is another thing you have to do with good friends once in a while). Iwanai has the most bars per capita of any city in Hokkaido, the people here like to drink and that’s a lifestyle we adapted to very quickly. We went to a karaoke bar and made fools of ourselves, singing way too loud to songs we didn’t know the words to.
The next weekend was the Obon festival in town, it signifies the ending of summer in Japan and it was the end of our time in Iwanai as well. We were excited to move on and to keep exploring the country, but we had really grown to love the little village and all the connections we’d made there. The last few days were bittersweet - we drank more beer, ate more sushi, and sang more karaoke, but most of all, we sanded that damn ski lift. Danny rode the bus with us all the way back to Sapporo, saying goodbye was sad, but not too difficult, because I know we’ll see him again one day.
Iwanai till I die.
Several photos in this post were taken by our new bud Koichi Matsuda (credit on hover).